Denials apart, bonded labour exists in new forms

Since May, the Centre has been giving advertisements that say, “Thanks to MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), no bonded labour anymore”.  But hardly a month later, the sub-divisional magistrate of Chikkaballapur in Karnataka, and chairperson of the vigilance committee to identify bonded labourers (BL), passed a resolution that  923 BL, in just that one sub-division, were entitled for release and rehabilitation. The resolution was the culmination of long-drawn-out efforts by activists of Jeevika (Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka) to get BL identified. 

In a rebuttal to the ads by the Centre, the newly formed CEBoLI (Coalition for Eradication of Bonded Labour in India) avers that “millions of landless SC, ST, BC and BPL population, far from getting benefits from MGNREGA, continue to slog as BL on the farms of big landlords hardly aware of MGNREGA”.  It is not rare to find even children bonded to landlords to pay off their fathers’ debts.

True, in popular perception, only those forced to work with chains on their feet are considered BL, like the quarry workers found at Hangarahalli a decade ago.  But less obvious, newer forms of bondage have been spawned through large-scale migration from rural to urban areas. In the globalised environment, contractors of corporate companies pay advances or give loans and bring crisis-ridden rural workers to work on huge infrastructure projects in cities, such as metros, etc. Here they work under inhuman conditions for less than minimum wages to pay off the loans.  The cuts in minimum wages often go towards usurious interest on the loans or the paltry housing provided. 

ILO estimates that nearly 12 million BL, mostly SCs, are languishing in India, accounting for about 56 per cent of the BL of the world.  Reluctance on the part of the top administration to admit that BL still exists is a key reason for its persistence. Mandatory vigilance committees are either not in place or they are dysfunctional and have failed to identify, release and rehabilitate BL. 

Currently under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (BLSAA), district magistrates and revenue officials are mandated to implement it.  One wonders if revenue officials engaged mostly  in collecting money from citizens, are suitable for implementing this social legislation and fight this social evil.  Also, vigilance committees are supposed to conduct surveys about once in three years to identify BL.

The identification of BL needs to be made a continuous process with permanent inspection machinery and designated officials who are held accountable for reporting bonded labourers.

Strangely in Karnataka, while revenue officials release BL and prosecute bond-masters, the Panchayat Raj institutions are required to report and rehabilitate BL.  At a recent national consultation organised by CEBoLI, several participants objected to making the Gram Panchayats responsible for reporting and rehabilitating BL. One former dalit GP president recalled how non-dalit GP members would overrule her decisions to take action on BL and even ensured that she was not elected again.
Bonded labour is linked to the implementation of other labour laws, such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen’s Act, the Contract Labour Act, etc.  The labour department provides a continuous machinery for inspections and is mandated to enforce these Acts.  Prof. Babu Mathew of National Law University of Delhi asserts that whenever labour is not being paid minimum wages, there needs to be a presumption of bonded labour.  In fact, the SC has ruled that non-payment of minimum wages is ‘forced labour’.

Thus, it seems reasonable to make labour inspectors, who are the first to note non-payment of minimum wages, responsible for reporting these cases as bonded labour to vigilance committees. This is also logical because at the Centre it is the ministry of labour which is monitoring this Act and in most other states too it is the Labour Department. Unless specific officials are held accountable for inspecting, reporting and taking action on BL, the Act will end up only on paper. 

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